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Courageous Conversations: Parents say policy fails in practice

PPS defends equity work as some question its impact


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Donna Maxey draws a sign for her next event. Race Talks is held every second Tuesday at the Kennedy School; Race Talks 2 is held every first Tuesday at Jefferson. Seven years ago, people at Portland Public Schools hardly talked about race at all.

Now it is everywhere: Race Talks, Focus on Diversity and Courageous Conversations in every school building, board room and administrative office.

Guided by the PPS’ 2011 Racial Education Equity Policy, race is a key factor in every district matter, from the budget and school boundary changes to the transfer policy, student discipline, achievement data, curriculum, teacher and principal reviews, and day-to-day teaching.

So where has all of this talk about race gotten us?

PPS insists the progress has been tangible, the cultural transformation visible.

But in September, Willamette Week reported that the disproportionate discipline rates between blacks and whites have grown since Courageous Conversations began. They noted that the largest narrowing of the achievement gap was at Grant High School, where former Principal Vivian Orlen didn’t believe in or use Courageous Conversations.

PPS counters with other measures of progress, but for every one there is a flip side, and data has remained flat or regressed.

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Many teachers and parents support Courageous Conversations, saying it’s created the right framework for the district to tackle its issues. PPS leaders insist the district is on track.

But a group of parents hasn’t seen it. The parents are feeling left out of the fray, having sat on the sidelines for seven years since Courageous Conversations began. They’ve been invited to sit in only recently, as “11 Beacon” schools — and a few other school communities — have started to implement the parent portion. They’re frustrated, angry and distrustful of district leaders.

“The implementation is all wrong, and it feels like it’s a smoke screen to cover up the real racial issues,” says Angel Rodriguez, a special-education advocate who sent one of his daughters through PPS and recently moved to Newberg to put his other daughter, who has special needs, in another school.

Rodriguez says he’s attended some of the Courageous Conversations seminars and read the books, but has been disappointed because he doesn’t see it engaging the right people, from the bottom up rather than the top down.

Scott Bailey, a longtime PPS activist and co-founder of Our Portland, Our Schools, sees both pros and cons. He’s glad that PPS is looking at issues through a racial lens.

However he’s bothered by several aspects: the uneven implementation in schools; the primary focus on black students over others; and the focus on skin color rather than other sources of inequity, such as socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender identity or religion.

District equity leaders insist the racial focus is intentional, and justified by the data.

As far as the differences in school-by-school implementation, PPS leaders say that’s also by design. “It has to allow for the differences between schools, the readiness of the staff,” says Erin Barnett, a district spokeswoman.

She adds that Courageous Conversations isn’t perfect, “but it’s been a very powerful framework

for us to talk about culture change and take it where it makes sense to

go.”

Part of the equity work has been providing teachers with training in “scaffolding,” which means adjusting lessons to meet the various ability levels of students in a classroom.

“As methodical as we can be, we’re trying to turn the ship around, be much more individually focused on kids’ needs,” Barnett says. “Our whole goal is raising achievement for all kids.”

Looking for results

Bailey and others also have lodged more serious concerns, that they feel Courageous Conversations has been used as a weapon against staff and parents in the name of equity.

For instance at Metropolitan Learning Center and other schools where parents have filed complaints against the leadership, race has been a complicating and controversial factor.

As tensions at MLC arose, because the principal is black and most of the parents are white, “there was a growing sense ... that (the principal) would not view what parents expressed to her as valid until they had gone through Courageous Conversations,” says Bruce Scherer, an MLC parent and a coordinator of the group Parents for Excellent Portland Principals.

The district provided Courageous Conversations to MLC parents and Scherer attended two sessions.

“It was provocative and eye-opening and an experience I appreciate,” he says. “I have a developing sense, however, that the district is treating Courageous Conversations as more than a discussion tool, but as a problem-solving device. I don’t think it’s built to be a problem-solving device.”

Rather, the training gets people to explore the way they regard themselves and their impacts on others, and then “nothing,” Scherer says: “Nothing about how a group can work to build up more power. Nothing about how different backgrounds can work together and change the dynamics. After awareness is raised, it becomes inert.”

That hasn’t been the case at Jackson Middle School, a mostly white, middle class population in Southwest Portland.

With black students comprising just 6 percent of the population (the large majority of whom are Somali refugees), “it would be easy to focus on the great majority of students,” says Will Fuller, a school advocate who is part of a coalition called Community Education Partners.

For the past three years that group has been working with Jackson and five other PPS schools to observe and take steps to reduce disparities in discipline.

While it’s happening outside the framework of Courageous Conversations, that was the impetus for the efforts, Fuller says.

“Jackson is making serious, concerted efforts to address race-related issues, including ongoing disparities in discipline,” he says. The school’s site council has taken steps like surveying all families about how to reach them in culturally sensitive ways, in an effort to include them in school improvement efforts.

“At Jackson, people are tired of just having conversations; they want to have results,” Fuller says. “They are moving from Courageous Conversation to Courageous Action.”

Bill for equity work grows

PPS’ investment in racial equity work has been deep, and the costs are adding up. Since 2007, PPS has spent $1.2 million on contracts with Pacific Educational Group, plus another $1.2 million in personnel time to cover substitutes during trainings.

In November, 78 PPS teachers, administrators and staff spent a week presenting at and attending the Courageous Conversations summit in St. Louis at a cost of $86,459 to the district. Grants and professional development money covered the rest of the $49,244 in expenses.

Singleton’s model is rigid, the same at each school district he consults with.

After the administrators and then teachers are trained, each school has its own equity team, charged with delivering ongoing race-focused training to staff at their site.

Thirty-four PPS schools have CARE (Collaborative Action Research for Equity) teams of teachers who have brought that work into their classrooms. PPS expects the CARE teams will expand to reach all teachers over time.

The Care and Equity teams meet with parent groups for two-hour staff trainings each month.

And the 11 pilot schools have PASS (Partnership for Academically Successful Students) teams, which work with the parents of students of color to advocate for their students.

PPS invited PASS team parents to attend three-hour equity seminars in October and December; another is being held at the Marshall Campus on Feb. 20.

PPS hasn’t yet renewed its contract with Singleton for next year; district officials say it depends on the budget outlook.

It isn’t likely to go away anytime soon.

Bobbie Regan, the district’s longest-serving school board member, says the equity work has laid the foundation for change. During a recent education-related trip to Peru, she says there was “enormous interest” in PPS’ equity policy and the intentional focus the district is placing on cultural awareness.

“We’re doing pretty significant work,” Regan says. “The sense I get is it’s all coming out of these conversations we’re having.”